By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 7, 2011 at 5:55AM
On entering adolescence, and discovering that cinema had more to offer than Roland Emmerich and Jackie Chan, this writer's favorite working actor swiftly became Kevin Spacey. The actor had been working for over a decade, converting his theater cred into supporting roles in the likes of "Working Girl," "Henry & June" and "Consenting Adults," but the middle of the 1990s saw him take pivotal roles in a number of the decade's biggest and best cult successes, becoming a by-word for a certain kind of morally ambivalent figure, even while creeping towards stardom in commercial hits like "Outbreak" and "A Time To Kill."
By the end of that decade, Spacey was a fully-fledged movie-star; he had two Oscars, he'd proved he could lead mainstream fare with the above-average thriller "The Negotiator," and he'd even voiced a Pixar villain before doing such a thing was fashionable. Unfortunately, the decade or so since has been hugely disappointing for those of us who considered ourselves fans of the actor, on screen: he used his new A-list status to topline a series of dreadful, sentimental dramas ("Pay It Forward," "K-PAX," "The Shipping News" and, in particular, "The Life Of David Gale," one of the worst films of the decade, and an impressive nadir for Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney and Alan Parker), before producing, writing, directing and starring in redundant vanity project "Beyond The Sea."
Since then, things have improved, although not by a huge amount: he had fun as a villain in "Superman Returns" (less so in "Fred Claus"), had a hit in "21," and otherwise has given decent performances in films that few saw -- "Telstar," "Shrink," "Casino Jack." Of course, this isn't the full story: he's moved into production, with his Trigger Street company, who were behind "The Social Network," and has since 2003 been the artistic director of the famous Old Vic Theatre in London, reviving the troubled house entirely, and turning in the kind of scintillating performances that we once came to expect, in shows as diverse as "Richard II," "The Philadelphia Story," "A Moon For The Misbegotten," "Speed-the-Plow," "Inherit The Wind" and, at present, a much-praised turn for Sam Mendes in "Richard III."
As such, it's hard to criticize Spacey too much for the disappointing nature of his screen work -- it's clear he essentially takes roles that will give him the financial freedom to run the Old Vic, his true passion. Another such paycheck role hits theaters this week, "Horrible Bosses," and, while it's far from his best work, it's at least reminiscent of the glory days, and seemed like a good excuse to look at some of our favorite Spacey performances. While a re-team with David Fincher on the Netflix original series "House of Cards" is looming, we hope that he doesn't leave the cinema behind entirely -- we'd love for him to bring out another turn of the quality of the six below.
1. “The Ref” (1994)
By the time he appeared in the late Ted Demme’s underrated 1994 film “The Ref,” Kevin Spacey had gotten the attention of moviegoers, in films like “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” and of critics, in films like “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His performance as the cuckolded, browbeaten Lloyd Chasseur opposite motor-mouthed Denis Leary and the manic Judy Davis, though, was one of the first indications that he would be among the most consistently impressive actors working today. It also proved that Spacey could alternate between comedy and drama flawlessly, even within the same film. Spacey is perfect as Lloyd, the hippie-turned-WASP who is trying to keep a marriage together with his unfaithful wife, Caroline (Davis). Their already fragile world is interrupted by a thief-on-the-run (Leary) who holds them at gunpoint when they are on their way home to host Christmas dinner. Even though Lloyd and Caroline are kept hostage by the most stressed out (and incompetent) thief of all time, the couple continues to insult one another despite the fact that there is a gun in their faces. Spacey shines while trying to pretend both that he's not being held captive and that his marriage is not falling apart, while simultaneously trying to host Christmas with his annoying relatives. The brilliance of Spacey’s performance comes from his ability to spit the most hateful vitriol at his wife one minute then turn around and sincerely kiss the ass of his overbearing, puppet master of a mother (Glynis Johns) the next. While in many ways “The Ref” is a precursor to his Academy Award-winning role in “American Beauty” which came only five years later, Spacey is infinitely more entertaining here in what is one of his most re-watchable performances to date.
"2. Swimming With Sharks" (1994)
If Spacey's turn in this weekend's "Horrible Bosses" seems familiar, there's a reason for that: it's in many ways a replay of his vicious, Machiavellian movie mogul in 1994's indie "Swimming With Sharks," and Spacey brings a certain star persona to the turn that Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who turned the part down) might have missed. The film, by former movie studio lackey George Huang --who was encouraged to make it by his pal Robert Rodriguez -- follows Guy (Frank Whaley), an aspiring screenwriter who takes a job as an assistant to studio executive Buddy Ackerman, who turns out to be virtually psychotic. Like a Tarantino version of "The Devil Wears Prada," Guy snaps, restraining his employer, beating and torturing him. Spacey makes a tremendous, foul-mouthed villain, as he's shown time and time again, but what elevates the performance here are the nuances: the vulnerability he shows talking about how he turned out the way he did, the subtly paternal relationship with his underlings. The film itself isn't quite a classic: Huang's a better writer than he is a director, and the film, a stagey two-hander, never quite feels like cinema (indeed, it was adapted for the stage in 2007 with a London run starring Kevin Spacey as Buddy and future Doctor Who Matt Smith as Guy). But Spacey really got a hell of a showcase here, and almost everything that follows can be put down to his performance.
3. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)
With four films released and a directorial debut in the can (the little-seen “Albino Alligator”) 1995 was clearly Spacey’s year and his somersault into the big leagues. We have the towering success of “The Usual Suspects” to thank for this. It was Spacey’s little film that could: Christopher McQuarrie’s potty-mouthed script and Bryan Singer’s slick direction relies on Spacey’s central performance as the mercurial Roger “Verbal” Kint to bolster their successes. Simultaneously feted as a masterpiece and dismissed as a cheap card-trick breathing down “Rashomon”’s neck since its release, whether or not you think the film’s final moments amount to nothing but a calculated rug-pulling exercise it’s plain to see that with “The Usual Suspects”, Spacey landed a hell of a role, and it’s formalized the persona he’s been trading off since the film came out. Kint is the film’s narrative lynchpin: apparently a low-rent short-con grifter and crippled patsy left for dead who - as it turns out - may or may not be an all-powerful “devil” called Keyser Söze at the head of a shady criminal underworld pulling all the strings. Spacey’s performance runs the gamut of emotions – from squirrelly yammering fidget to detached dead-eyed quasi-Machiavelli – underpinned by his laconic unassuming drawl and complemented by a subtle physical performance. Taking the hoary literary cliché of the unreliable narrator and offering it up to the audience as literal manifestations of Kint’s elaborate imagination, Spacey humanizes the calculated clever-clever impulses of McQuarrie’s hyper-real prose and seduces the viewer as ably as Kint does Chazz Palminteri. And although the National Board of Review may have awarded the film Best Acting By An Ensemble and the then-smouldering Gabriel Byrne was – to 1995 audiences – the film’s leading man, it’s Spacey that walks away with the entire movie. Spacey would also net an Oscar for his troubles and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.